After a pair of consecutive Number One love songs in 1979 — “She Believes in Me” and “You Decorated My Life” — Kenny Rogers released about the furthest thing possible from a sappy, soaring ode: the revenge story-song “Coward of the County.”
Written by Roger Bowling and Billy Edd Wheeler, and released on Rogers’ Kenny album, “Coward” addressed some pretty serious topics, even in a genre known for its depiction of tragic lives. For three weeks in 1980, a song that had a gang rape as its central narrative was the Number One country song in the U.S. To sum up: the titular wimp, named Tommy, is by all accounts “yellow,” steering clear of any and all confrontation because of his father’s dying words to “walk away from trouble.” But when his girlfriend Becky is victimized by the dastardly “Gatlin boys,” well, all hell breaks loose. (Watch Rogers perform the song below.)
“Victimized,” however, is putting it mildly. In one of the most uncomfortable lines in the country lyrics canon, the Gatlins “took turns at Becky” — and as Rogers intones ominously, “there was three of them.” Taking a moment to picture the meaning behind those words, it’s hard to stifle the “ew” that inevitably rises up from within the gut. Yet fans of all ages were innocently singing along as “Coward” became both a country and pop hit, peaking at Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100.
But perhaps we were all just cheering Tommy’s metamorphosis, as he transforms from wuss to ass-whipper when he tracks down the Gatlin boys in a local bar. Locking the door behind him, he has it out with the rapists and drops a movie-hero one-liner when he watches the last of the trio fall: “This one’s for Becky.”
Now, “Coward of the County” doesn’t expressly state that ol’ Tommy shot up his nemeses, but a little gunplay is more than likely — three-against-one odds aren’t exactly in Tommy’s favor. And what’s a revenge anthem without a murder? Or three.